HALIFAX — Joel Lion looked with amazement at the plaque.
“The Jewish Legion: The 38th through 42nd Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers became known as the Jewish Legion. Camp Edward in Windsor, N.S., provided the training ground for over 1,100 Jewish troops.”
“I knew the story of the Jewish Legion and its history, but never knew it was in Canada and Nova Scotia,” Israel’s consul general to Quebec and the Atlantic provinces said during a visit to Halifax and Prince Edward Island earlier this month that concluded his three-year term.
He then saw a plaque identifying David Green – later to become David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister – as one of the trainees at Camp Edward in 1917. The plaque said, “At 70 years, Ben-Gurion wrote [to the mayor of Windsor]: “I will never forget Windsor where I received my first military training as a soldier and when I became a corporal.”
Lion was given a tour of an exhibit, mounted by the Army Museum Halifax Citadel, commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I, featuring original uniforms, equipment and pictures and with a replica of the Vimy Memorial in France.
The exhibit featured the sizeable contingent of Jewish volunteers, a number of whom went on to create the modern State of Israel three decades later.
Nova Scotia’s close connection with Jewish volunteers who fought in World War I almost didn’t happen, due to the intransigence of the British Army. At the time, Jewish activists were eager to join the Allied war effort and help liberate Palestine, which they wished to restore as a homeland for Jewish people.
When the war started, Palestine was controlled by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, which was aligned with Germany and its allies. In December 1914, with hostilities just a few months old, the Jewish activists urged Britain to create a Jewish unit to be part of the British effort to liberate Palestine. Britain refused because it did not allow foreign nationals to serve in its army.
London did agree, however, to establish the Zion Mule Corps, a unit of Jewish volunteers tasked with transporting supplies by mules during the 1915 Dardanelles Campaign in northwest Turkey. Unfortunately, the campaign was a disaster and one of the casualties was the Zion Mule Corps, which was all but disbanded.
Two years later, with the war bogged down in bloody trench warfare in Europe, the British finally relented to Jewish pressure and agreed to create five Jewish-based infantry battalions as part of the Royal Fusiliers. Collectively, these battalions were known as the Jewish Legion and had the distinction of being the first Jewish military fighting formation in over 2,000 years. Members wore the badges of the Royal Fusiliers but with a Star of David patch on their sleeves.
One of these units was the 39th Battalion. It was recruited from American and Canadian volunteers and assembled in Nova Scotia, the closest embarkation point to Europe. Training took place at Camp Edward in Windsor under a Jewish commanding officer, Lieut.-Col. Eliezer Margolin. By all accounts, the soldiers lived in tents pitched below the Fort Edward blockhouse, a structure that still stands today. During its 10 months of operation, more than 1,100 American and Canadian Jewish volunteers went through Camp Edward.
When training was complete, the 39th Battalion was shipped to England and then Palestine, where it joined the 38th Battalion and saw action in the Jordan Valley and at the Battle of Megiddo, a decisive victory on the Ottoman front.
In all, 50,000 Jews served in World War I. They were awarded five Victoria Crosses, and 50 Distinguished Conduct Medals. Many founders of the State of Israel served in the Jewish Legion, Ben-Gurion, who trained at Camp Edward in Windsor and served with the 39th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers; the second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi; and the third prime minister, Levi Eshkol.
The Jewish Legion was disbanded following the armistice in November 1918.